Archives for posts with tag: Israel

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

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Sermon for the Parish Eucharist by Extension on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2018

2 Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20:1-2,11-18

Confronting the Miracle

The story of Mary Magdalene might be the most important passage in the Bible.

Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. What did it mean?

… she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

How to deal with it mentally, in our thought – is it open to reasonable doubt?

Reasoning against other logical possibilities, that, e.g.

– Joseph of Arimathea took his body and reburied it; why? What good would it do to Joseph, or anyone he sympathised with?

– Jesus wasn’t dead when they put him in the tomb;

– The Jews or the Christians took his body; what Mary M initially thought must have happened. Someone would have ‘snitched’ or leaked.

– It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. The late David Jenkins, formerly Bishop of Durham, said it was not a …

Rational answers are available to contradict all these theories.

But do we believe? Memo 1 Cor 15:12f. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our faith is in vain: we are proclaiming a lie.

But what does it mean, to believe in something? To believe that x is true, x is real – but what does that mean? That x is something, or does something? That if I believe that x, x is necessarily true? Not necessarily.

If I believe that something is true, then for me it is true; but someone else might review the exact same proposition that I have said must be an example of God at work, and get the same moral imperatives without a Christian sanction. Do this, because God says it is good, or, if God is not in the picture, because it benefits the most people or makes for the greatest human happiness (if you are a Utilitarian, say).

What if we somehow ‘duck’ the issue and simply carry on? How? I think this is a way of describing what Richard Dawkins thinks. He doesn’t worry about a beginning or an end of creation, but rather sees a process, evolution, which is all we need to know about, from a practical point of view. There is no Creator, no divine force.

Can there be a sort of ‘tribal’ Christianity? Maybe the earliest example of this would be the army of the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 325AD [CE]. Constantine, inspired by a dream, ordered that his soldiers should paint on their shields the symbol of the Cross. They then won a victory. Did they believe? Surely not. But Constantine went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s arguable that that was as important in making Christianity a worldwide religion as St Paul’s work among the so-called ‘Gentiles’, the ‘nations’, in a Jewish Bible context, the non-Jews.

If either St Paul’s realisation that the Gospel ought to be preached to the Gentiles, or the Emperor Constantine’s decision to adopt Christianity as his empire’s official religion, had not happened, we might well not be here in church.

But what about today? People talk about having ‘Christian values’, without their being churchgoers. That’s interesting. The way that St Paul thought it worked, as he put it in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), and effectively as everyone from John the Baptist onward preached, if you came to believe in the Good News of Christ, you would be changed: you would ‘repent’. And you would start to live a virtuous life.

But what if you skip the believing bit, and just decide to live a virtuous life, because it makes sense to you?

We’ve then got at least two schools of lukewarm moralists. C of E Christians, on the one hand, say, and the ‘spiritual – I mean charitable – but not religious’ on the other.

But are we right to qualify these two groups as ‘lukewarm moralists’? Lukewarm, yes. The early Christians were willing to sacrifice themselves for the Gospel, for the cause. To die for it. Horribly, often. But what about us? Maybe some are willing to risk their lives. Respect to them! But most of us will do good, generous deeds, just so long as rescuing refugees doesn’t involve personal liability or risk.

Is this akin to the current populism, mistrust of ‘experts’ etc? A rejection of reason? Voting for Trump, who is a racist, sexist, xenophobe and liar? Why should these characteristics not weigh more with people?

How do we regard people who definitely don’t believe? Or who are happy to take part in church activities, but ‘I don’t go along with everything in the Creed’? Do we let them ‘belong and then believe?’

What about being ‘inclusive’?

What would Mary Magdalene say? We often ask, ‘What would Jesus say?’ But what would Mary say? If she met one of the lukewarm believers …?

Why is her story the most important in the Bible? Compare the best-known passage, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God – the creator – loves us. Only the creator could bring a dead person back to life. Think about that, in the light of the Mary Magdalene story. Really confront it. Confront the miracle. Don’t just duck it, don’t say it’s too hard. Then perhaps being a Christian really will change you. Change you for the better.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 29th April 2018

Isaiah 60:1-14, Revelation 3:1-13

I’m not sure whether Jerusalem is a good thing. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’: as some of you will know, always puts me in mind of my favourite biscuit when I was little: Huntley and Palmer’s Milk and Honey biscuit, which was a bit like a superior jammy dodger. No, what I have in mind now is that the idea of Jerusalem covers all sorts of things. It is a place: for sure it is a place today, which President Trump has designated as the place where the United States will have its embassy, as though it were the capital of Israel – although it isn’t. There is the place in ancient times which Isaiah, the third of the three authors who together make up the book of the prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century before Christ, made the more or less mythical capital of the promised land, the city of the Lord, the ‘Zion’ of the holy one of Israel. Zion is the name of the hill on which the city of David, the centre of Jerusalem, was built. It was the place for the temple and was, in a sense, where God lived.

So it goes on to have a meaning as the heavenly city, the kingdom of heaven; which is the idea in our reading from Revelation. ‘Him that overcometh’, the elect, the chosen ones, ‘him … will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God’. We still talk about people being ‘pillars’, ‘pillars of the church’. They are the stalwarts, the usual suspects, on the PCC and Deanery Synod.

That mythical new Jerusalem was adopted by William Blake, of course, in his great hymn,” And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? … I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

In some ways that all sounds very admirable and harmless. The picture in Isaiah of the holy city, ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense’ is a wonderful picture. You may wonder, of course, what a dromedary is. And I have to tell you that Hilaire Belloc, in his ‘Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ gets the dromedary completely wrong. He says,

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:

I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse, collected edition (1954), reprinted 1991, London, Pimlico, p.237 n

A Kurd, you know, people who live on the borders between Turkey and Iraq: Kurds, not animals at all! But also, dromedaries are not birds, not birds at all. They are a sort of small camel. Mind you, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts is probably not a good source of zoological information. I can’t resist reading you what Hilaire Belloc says about the tiger, just before the entry about the dromedary. It comes after his description of the lion.

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,

He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;

And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)

Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Oh dear. Well, Isaiah correctly thought of dromedaries as a species of camel. ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Everyone will come to the holy city, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles: ‘The Gentiles shall come to thy light.., the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.’

‘Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.’

This is a clue to the problem which I want to go into now. It’s the idea of a homeland or nationality; it’s a very strong idea in many people. Scotsmen go all over the world but keep their Scottishness; they always celebrate St Andrew’s Night and Burns Night. But nationality is not an entirely benign idea. The problem seems to come when people are on the move. Obviously, as we are in church, we can think of the Jews, the people of Israel, leaving the land of Egypt and the land of Babylon –

‘By the waters of Babylon

We sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’ Psalm 137.

They longed for the Promised Land. Then, as we know, the promised land story was effectively repeated, but without any parting of the Red Sea or anything, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Palestine was declared to be a national home for the Jews – and there’s been trouble ever since, between the Israelites and the people they displaced, the Palestinians.

In this country, maybe William Blake’s new Jerusalem has to some extent already been built. I noticed that an MP called Kemi Badenoch, whose parents were Nigerian, was saying on ‘Any Questions’ on Friday that she thought that Britain was a very attractive country for people to come to and settle in; and that we are a welcoming people. I have to say, having heard the awful stories of what has happened to many of the ‘Windrush people’, I thought she was being rather generous; but nevertheless, the idea is there. It seems to be a similar one to the one in Isaiah: that if we have ‘built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’, then not only the Israelites, but also the Gentiles will be welcome to it:

‘.. thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night’

so presumably that means that not only the people who were born here, but also other people from outside – in this context, the ‘Gentiles’ – should be able to get into the Holy City.

But then again, perhaps the Holy City is spiritual, a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one, so we should rather look at the sort of vision that St John the Divine shares with us in Revelation. A place for the people who prove worthy of salvation:

‘Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world..’

If you are one of the saved, then you are going to be welcome in the City of God, new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem is in heaven, or it ‘comes down from heaven’. I think that, as soon as you see the word ‘heaven’, it’s a signal that this is a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one.

The Son of Man, Jesus, appearing to St John the Divine, telling him to write down his letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, is a sort of preparation for the Day of Judgement. Watch out! ‘I know thy works’. You aren’t everything that you’re cracked up to be. Be careful, if you want to go to the new Jerusalem.

So I wonder whether the idea of the new Jerusalem resonates with us at all today. Is it in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’? If so, are the Gentiles allowed in – with their camels and dromedaries, bringing their gold and silver? Who are the ‘Gentiles’ today? Are they just us, who happen not to be Jewish? or should we be like the church at Philadelphia – by the way, you know what ‘Philadelphia’ means in Greek: it means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ – and of course that includes sisters too. Αδελφός means a brother, and αδελφή a sister, so Φιλαδέλφεια means brotherly or sisterly love.

So are we going to be like the people in Philadelphia? Although they have ‘a little strength’, they’re not very strong, they have ‘kept my word’ and have not ‘denied my name’. They will be welcome in the new Jerusalem. We know what we have to do. Open the gates!

L

Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

Did you see the Shetland pony this morning? The children made a beautiful tableau and there was a Shetland pony pretending to be a donkey for them to ride on, to make a procession, to remember Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem for the last week. It’s really a bittersweet message. For that lovely hour or two, Jesus led a procession of people who believed that he was God’s chosen saviour, God’s chosen saviour in a triumphal sense, like a Roman general returning in triumph from conquests overseas, leading a procession into the capital.

But the sad thing is that that was then, but the mood darkened very quickly thereafter. The clouds started to gather and Jesus started to challenge Jerusalem. This parable, the parable of the vineyard, some of which, on one level, was simply a retelling of the story from the prophet Isaiah, sets the tone.

Holy Week is about divine judgement; for God, against God. For man, against man: ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’. Isaiah made a prophecy of the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah – the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel, and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished – ‘He looked for righteousness but found it denied, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.’ [Is. 5:7, NEB] Jesus put out this story as a challenge. You are the chosen people, Israel. You have all the advantages. God has done everything he can to make the vineyard a good one.

Then he let it, to professional winemakers, tenants. Those tenants are the human race. The human race rejected God’s son and eventually killed him. What will God do? What will the landlord of the vineyard do? If we, who are tenants in his vineyard, have a lease on life in this world? What will God do if we have killed his son? It is a truly terrifying prospect.

Even so, we don’t really appreciate its force these days. This morning I said my theme was that we know what comes next. There was a sort of spoiler alert. We know that after the Passion, after Jesus’ terrible suffering, after Jesus dies, after God is killed, God rises again in glory on Easter morning.

Maybe we can’t really help knowing what comes next, but still, we ought to appreciate the force of the Passion story. We ought to appreciate that we are still like the tenants in the vineyard. If we have no care for God, if we do the things which killed Jesus, if we have no love for him and no love for each other, if we pursue false gods, then we are like those hard-hearted people who figured that it was to their advantage to free Barabbas and crucify the son of God.

Whatever we have been doing by way of Lenten reflection, in prayer and abstinence in the last four weeks, in this week of all weeks we should remember that we are tenants in God’s vineyard.

Maybe, just as with a new story, if we know what happens, we should keep it to ourselves – spoiler alert! – we should actually be cautious about saying we know what happens next. What will the owner of the vineyard do? We’re very cavalier. We just carry on. We live our lives as we’ve always done. We don’t receive the stranger, and take him in: we don’t give him clothes, when he’s shivering with cold. Is he a real refugee, or just a migrant?

But Jesus wouldn’t have made that distinction. In that time of final judgment, when Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, he will decide, he will judge, by what we have done for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the homeless stranger, for the person with no clothes. [See Matt. 25:31f]

It is disgraceful that there are still thousands of people in Calais and Dunkirk who are marooned without proper habitation, without washing facilities and proper sanitation. These are people whose homes in Syria have been bombed, whose families have been decimated. Some of the children in the camp actually have a legal right to join relatives in this country, but it’s not happening.

We are going to take the Foodbank van over there soon. There was some confusion at first, and we couldn’t find out how to get access to the camp; but now we have established contact with the local Guildford charity, Guildford People to People, and we’ll be able to get in. Many of you have already given clothes and blankets, which is great. I’ll let you know if there are any other needs which we can supply. We must do it. Jesus will ask us, when he was a stranger, a refugee, what did we do?

Then again there was another terrible story in the paper this week. An MP, Stella Creasy, had actually thrown the chief exec of a charity out of her office – called a policeman to throw him out of the Houses of Parliament – because she was so cross with him.

His charity had sold some flats which it owned, all of which had been occupied for years by poorer people who thought that the charity was looking after them. The charity sold the flats to a developer, who promptly gave all the poor tenants notice to quit. The MP raised this with the chief exec of the charity. Was it not wrong that their old tenants, old people, should be made homeless in this way? He shrugged his shoulders and said,’It happens’. All that mattered was that they had raised a lot of money by selling the flats. ‘It happens’ is what people say, far too often. We have to try to stop ‘it’ happening. ‘It’ is the sort of thing which has killed the son in the vineyard.

Let’s not be like the tenants in the vineyard. Let’s not do the things that kill the landlord’s son. Jesus was challenging us, us just as much as he was challenging his contemporary audience. We must not throw Him out; we mustn’t leave him shivering outside; we must make room in our hearts for Him.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 26th July 2015 

Job 19:1-27, Hebrews 8 

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. We are all very familiar with these words, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: …. For now is Christ risen, from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ The first bit comes from our Old Testament lesson, Job chapter 19, and the second from 1 Corinthians 15. The link between the two was made by Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, who was of course no mean theologian. He made a link between the ‘Redeemer’ in Job and Jesus Christ, whom we often refer to as our Saviour and Redeemer.

But I think that it’s at least arguable that Job was not in fact referring to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, the chosen one of God, coming to save Israel. I think he had a narrower perspective. He simply thought that his troubles had been caused by God; that they were unjust, but that God would eventually be there again, to vindicate him, to defend him, to redeem him from the unjust punishment which he was suffering. 
He had done nothing wrong, and therefore what his Job’s Comforters, his friends, were saying about bad people wasn’t to the point. Just before Chapter 19 that we heard, Bildad the Shuhite had said, 

He is driven from light into darkness

and banished from the land of the living.

He leaves no issue or offspring among his people,

no survivor in his earthly home;

in the west men hear of his doom and are appalled;

in the east they shudder with horror.

Such is the fate of the dwellings of evildoers, … (Job 18:18f, NEB)

In this lively debate between Job and his so-called friends there is an unspoken assumption that Job is suffering because in fact he has done something dreadful: he has brought his suffering on himself: he is being punished for something which he has done. It is a terrible punishment. Everybody is alienated from him:

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away, 

my retainers have forgotten me;

… My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family. [Job 19:13f, NEB]

In the to-ing and fro-ing between the Friends and Job, the friends seeking to justify poor old Job’s sufferings, on the basis that they are the sufferings that wicked people deserve, and Job stoutly defending himself, at one point Bildad, his cheerless friend, says, 

How soon will you bridle your tongue?

Do but think and then we will talk.

What do you mean by treating us as cattle?

Are we nothing but brute beasts to you?

There is one standard for animals, and one standard for humans. Humans, by implication, have rights: human rights. But if one treats them like animals, one is not doing justice to them.

On Friday, the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ popped through my letterbox as usual, and I was brought up short by the main headline on the front page: “‘They treat us like animals’ say travellers”. It was a piece about the Gypsies who had arrived and spent a few days by the war memorial on the Tilt. Tom Smurthwaite, the Surrey Advertiser’s reporter who covers Elmbridge, and who impresses me with the quality of his reporting, had been to interview the Gypsies, the Travellers, and there was a very moving extended quote from his interview with one of the group, John Lewis, who spoke of the ‘tough life’ he experienced as a Traveller. He had said, ‘When councils ask us to move, they know a lot of us are not well educated. They give us the paperwork and it hasn’t got a county court stamp on it. They treat us like animals and look at us like we are foreign insects – it’s not right in the eyes of God. Everyone is a human being.’

That rang a bell with me. On Monday I had been to a lecture at the Cathedral by the Master of the Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones, on Magna Carta. A very good lecture, explaining how Magna Carta had been the foundation of the rule of law which we enjoy in this country. The Church, in the person of Archbishop Stephen Layton, had been at the heart of the negotiations. 

The principles of the rule of law are enshrined in Magna Carta. The rule of law: for example, that ‘no free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ – that’s chapter 39 – or chapter 40, ‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’ This was what Job was hoping for – a fair trial with someone to argue his case for him, his Vindicator, his ‘Redeemer’.

The rule of law involves a powerful set of principles, a heady brew, which I had been reflecting on: it came to a sharp focus in the moving cri de coeur of John Lewis, the spokesman for the Travellers who had stayed for a few days on the Tilt.

He said, ‘Although some people understand our culture, and have been very sympathetic… People see us come into a community and say, Oh my God, here come the Gypsies; my lawnmower is going to go missing. … This is not the case; we don’t bother anyone. Our children go to the local swimming pool and are told they are not welcome, and pubs turn us away.’ 

Another member of the group, Lisa Green, described as the group’s ‘matriarch’, said, ‘Everywhere we go, it’s as if we are aliens. People threaten the travelling community and try to run us out of town. There are lots of green spaces in Surrey,’ Miss Green said, and councils should be able to provide sites that are  of the way. ‘It would be better for residents and the travellers – councils don’t care as long as we go, that’s the truth. If they could tell us where we would be able to settle, we would gladly go. The Romani-Irish groups need to be recognised as a community,’ Miss Green believes. ‘It’s our way of life,and we are not going away. We are not dirty people… Everyone has their own rights and cultures, and you are never going to get rid of travellers.’ Of course the last person who tried to get rid of the Gypsies was – Hitler.

When I was little, I remember that my grandfather read me stories from a book by G. Bramwell Evens, who gave nature talks on BBC radio – the Home Service – using the pen-name ‘Romany’: because he was at the same time a Methodist minister and also, by birth and upbringing, a Gypsy. Romany paved the way for people like David Attenborough. His stories were very beautiful and showed a real sensitivity and understanding of the countryside. Some of his books are still in print, although he died in 1943.

But I realised that, apart from hearing ‘Romany’s’ stories, I had never really encountered, let alone talked to a Traveller, to a Gypsy. I have always been somewhere else, or even walked round the other side and avoided any kind of meeting. I vaguely remember people coming to sell clothes pegs at the door to my mother. She said that they were Gypsies. But I have never really met one.

At the talk on Monday night about Magna Carta, there was a question whether Magna Carta was related in any way to the Human Rights Act. The learned speaker asked a member of the audience, Lord Toulson, one of the Law Lords, who happened to be there, to answer the question. Lord Toulson referred to a book called ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham. [Bingham, T., 2010, The Rule of Law; London, Allen Lane] 

Lord Bingham, another eminent Law Lord, the former Master of the Rolls, had written in his book that in his view there was a direct line of history between Magna Carta and the principles of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention upon which it was based. 

Indeed Article 6, the right to a fair trial, and Article 7, no punishment without law, are direct descendants of Chapters 40 and 39 respectively of Magna Carta. Lord Bingham has written in his book, ‘.. the rights and freedoms embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, are in truth “fundamental”, in the sense that they are guarantees which no one living in a free democratic society such as the UK should be required to forgo’ [Bingham p.68]. In other words, they are rights which we enjoy simply by virtue of our being human.

We are not to be treated as animals: but that distinction, which came up in the debates in the Book of Job, is still a live issue today. ‘They treat us like animals’, said the Travellers, here on our doorstep.

Of course, in a sermon in the parish church, as this is, I shouldn’t cross the line into anything political, but one has to note, in passing, that our local MP, Dominic Raab, is now a junior minister, and that one of his jobs is to progress the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’. This has, of course, been widely challenged, not least by many members of the judiciary and legal profession.

In Lord Bingham’s book, which came out five years ago, he says this. ‘Over the past decade or so, the Human Rights Act and the Convention to which it gave effect in the UK have been attacked in some quarters, and of course there are court decisions, here and in the European Court, with which one may reasonably disagree. But most of the supposed weaknesses of the Convention scheme are attributable to misunderstanding of it, and critics must ultimately answer two questions. Which of the rights … would you discard? Would you rather live in a country in which these rights were not protected by law? I repeat the contention [that] …. the rule of law requires that the law afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. … There are probably rights which could valuably be added to the Convention, but none which could safely be discarded.’

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth. I know that my Vindicator, my Defender, liveth’. Who is to stand up for, to vindicate, people like the Travellers? You might say that there is an atmosphere of lawlessness about Travellers; that they don’t play by the rules. I’ve no idea whether this is true, but it is something that you hear.

I think that there is something in our New Testament lesson, from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is worth considering in this context. I don’t think I would make quite such a simple move as in Handel’s Messiah, from ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ to identifying that Redeemer with Jesus Christ, but I do think that there is a very relevant contrast in Hebrews 8. 

The writer to the Hebrews contrasts the first Covenant which God made with his chosen people, which has become redundant, has died out, if you like: it lost its force ‘…because they did not abide by the terms of that covenant, and I abandoned them,’ says the Lord.

The new covenant would not depend, for its effectiveness, on whether it was observed by the people: ‘I shall be their God, and they shall be my people. … For all of them, high and low, shall know me; I will be merciful to their wicked deeds, and I will remember their sins no more.’ 

This is the essence of New Testament theology to me. On the one hand, the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; albeit a fair system of justice – no more than an eye for an eye – but certainly not much room for generosity or forgiveness. In the New Testament, by contrast, Jesus’ rule of love, the rule of the Sermon on the Mount, rules out retaliation and goes by love. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of ‘They treat us like animals’ there could be a headline, ‘We know that our Redeemer liveth. So we are safe and welcome here in Cobham.’

imageSermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 14th June 2015
Jeremiah 7:1-16, Romans 9:14-26

On Wednesday night the Leatherhead Deanery Synod met in our church hall. It was a very interesting meeting, addressed by the Revd Canon Dr Hazel Whitehead, who is director for Discipleship Vocation and Ministry in our Guildford Diocese. Hazel is dynamic and somewhat formidable. Her topic was so-called ‘Faith Sharing’.

Among other things, she asked us to come up with about 20 words which would sum up the Good News, the Gospel message, which we would want to share with any heathens that we might meet in our ordinary lives. There was discussion about how one could approach people who were not Christians in a way which might open their minds to knowing more about the Gospel.

We all were nervous about possibly seeming like Jehovah’s Witnesses or those earnest people with clip-boards who tackle you at the least suitable time when you are out and about. I think that it’s probably true to say that many of us are not naturally ‘God Squad’ people, but nevertheless we are sincere in our belief, and if we could find a way of doing it, which didn’t make us look like lunatics, we would be very happy to share the Good News with people who don’t yet know about it.

How would I speak to the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, to use the old lawyer’s phrase, about the work of a prophet like Jeremiah, who was at work 400 years after the kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two, a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah, including Jerusalem.

Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BC-

‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold’

as you will remember, in Lord Byron’s poem: and in 587 BC the remainder of the Chosen People, the people of Judah, were deported to Babylon:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept (Psalm 137).

400 years before, there had been the time of the Exodus, and Moses had received the Ten Commandments from the Lord. Jeremiah was reminding the people of Judah that they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land if they kept God’s commandments: to love the Lord your God, and not to worship other gods, and to keep the other moral laws, not to steal, not to do murder, not to commit adultery, and so on.

Interestingly, when he is going through the various commandments, Jeremiah doesn’t recite the commandments about stealing, murdering and committing adultery, until he has emphasised, they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land, ‘If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.’

We tend to think of Old Testament morality as being centred around ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. Not a bit of it – practical care for the weaker members of society was very important indeed. We perhaps don’t think of it as being part of the Law of Moses – it was not actually part of the Ten Commandments not to oppress the fatherless, the stranger and the widow. But it is part of the Jewish Law: you’ll find it in Deuteronomy (24:17) and in Exodus (22:22). There’s a real strain of socially-directed morality in the Jewish Law.

The Italians and the Maltese today, throwing their navy and their coast guard into rescuing all the refugees embarking from North Africa in unseaworthy craft, are carrying out the Law of Moses. They are saving the strangers, the refugees. Jesus affirmed that Jewish Law. He said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17).

It surprises me that, although they have committed the Royal Navy, our government so readily rejects the proposals of the European Commission, that all the nations of Europe should take a fair share of the refugees. In this our government’s attitude seems to me not only to be contrary to the Law of Moses, but also to the precepts of Christ Himself.

But if even the government is so deaf to God’s commands, how do I get through to the man on the Clapham omnibus about the ‘law and the prophets’? How can I get him to think about whether keeping to the Law and following the prophets would keep him in the Promised Land, as Jeremiah was saying to the people of Judah? Alas, I have a feeling that the chap on the bus will look at me as though I’d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.

What about what St Paul says? In Romans 9, ‘Is there unrighteousness with God?’ Is God unfair? Is God unjust? St Paul goes back to the original giving of the Ten Commandments, God saying to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ In other words, nothing that humans can do will necessarily influence the will of God.

But does that make God good, or bad? Again, it looks quite difficult to explain to our chap on the bus. (Perhaps not on the actual number 88 from Clapham, but maybe I might be listened to on a number 9 coming along Pall Mall – a Boris Bus – what do you think?)

It was relatively simple in the time of Jeremiah. Behave decently, look after those who are weak and disadvantaged in your society – and God will look favourably on you. He will not turf you out of the Promised Land.

But St. Paul points out that things aren’t quite so simple. In the passage which comes immediately after that terrific passage which we often have at funerals – ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’,[Rom. 8:38-39], Paul agonises about whether the Israelites, the Jews, are still the chosen people.

Of course much of the Old Testament is a kind of epic love-hate story between the chosen people and God. When the chosen people obeyed God, worshipped the One True God, then they were able to escape from captivity in Egypt and go into the Promised Land.

But then when they mixed with the Canaanites, whose land they had occupied, and started to worship the Baals, the gods that the Canaanites worshipped, and no longer exclusively worshipped the One True God, then God was angry with them, and eventually they lost the Promised Land.

What St Paul points out is that God is not some kind of cosmic prizegiver. God is far greater than that. As it says at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, ‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become Children of God’. St Paul says, ‘As Hosea prophesied, I will call them my people which were not my people; and it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there shall they be called the children of the living God’.

God is omnipotent, so of course He can do this: and there’s no point answering back and complaining, railing against God if He doesn’t do what we want.

Back to my 20 words of message to my heathen friend on the top deck of the Number 9 bus. What would he make of a prophet like Jeremiah, and what would he make of a Jewish convert to Christianity like St Paul? Our heathen friend is, by definition, in this context, not an Israelite, not one of the chosen people.

So he won’t be familiar with the terms of art, with the language, of Christianity and Judaism before it. What does a prophet do? Could there be prophets today? In the Old Testament, at the crucial moment, God will speak through a prophet, to His chosen people: ‘Do this. Do that, and you will be able to enjoy the promised land.’

In today’s world, after the New Testament, it may be a bit different. Be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Try to discern what God has in mind for you, and what God is calling you to do. ‘Amend your ways and your doings. If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow’, says God through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘then I will dwell with you in this place.’

So what are we to make of all this? How would we share it with our heathen friend? How does God speak to us these days? Do we still have prophets, and if we don’t, how do we know if what we are doing is in line with the will of God?

St Paul doesn’t say straightforwardly that God only does good things. He asks, ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ He answers his own question, By no means – or, ‘God forbid.’ But he then goes on to say that God ‘will have mercy on whom [he] has mercy and [he] will have compassion on whom [he] has compassion.’ In other words, justice seems to depend on God’s whim, not on whether something is right or wrong.

It’s an old philosophical problem, and it’s possible that it was something that Paul knew about, from his study of Ancient Greek philosophy, and in particular, Plato. 400 years before the time of Christ, Plato wrote about the teaching of Socrates. Socrates himself didn’t write anything down, but he was reported faithfully, just as Boswell reported Dr Johnson, by Plato.

Socrates’ philosophical investigations usually took the form of dialogues, of conversations that he had with various people, which brought out the issues that he wanted to explore.

One of these dialogues is called Euthyphro. It takes the form of a conversation between Socrates and a man called Euthyphro. In the course of the dialogue, the famous Euthyphro Dilemma comes up. It is this: is something good because it is good in itself or is it good because God makes it good? St Paul seems to come down on the side of the second: something is good because God makes it good. The Ten Commandments are expressions of the will of God not because they are good in themselves but because God has laid them down by giving them to Moses.

It does seem clear, nevertheless, that most of the things that are recommended in the Jewish law are, almost self-evidently, good in themselves. But what about the refugee, and the widow and the orphan? What about the immigrants? Is God telling us to look after them? And if He is, what are we doing about it?